Review Of William
Trevor’s The Collected Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/10/06
Reading William Trevor’s The Collected Stories, which clocks in at eighty-five tales and 1261 pages, is a chore. And not because it is such a hefty tome, which it is, nor because the pages are large and the type small, but because of the very deliberate writing style of the man. That said, Trevor is a good writer- a very good writer at his best, but that good and very good writer appears in about twenty and eight of the stories respectively. The rest of the book is filled with solidly written tales, but tales that also are a bit formulaic, but more important, are filled with logy and lack energy. In reading William Trevor (his pen name, as he was born William Trevor Cox in County Cork, Ireland, in 1928) I was nagged for the first 250 or so pages with the thought that he reminded me of another writer, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it hit. Trevor is the Anglo-Irish John Cheever. Except, Cheever was generally more concise than Trevor, and while Trevor, at his best, is better than Cheever, he lacks his overall consistency. In short, the blurb on the paperback version’s front cover- ‘Trevor is probably the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language.’- is unequivocally false. At his best he comes close to Cheever, but at his worst his characters creak with all the inauthenticity of John Updike’s morose and pallid wights. In fact, as I was reading Trevor I was also alternating his stories with the Collected Stories of American Southern writer Reynolds Price, and I can say that Trevor isn’t close to being the writer Price is. One of the major reasons for this is that a) Trevor is a very prosaic writer- in his word choices and lack of concision. Price is highly poetic. And b) Trevor does not have a particularly good ear for conversation. His conversations tend to go on and on and on, well past the point of conveying the manifest point of the conversation, while not snipping off the superfluous portions to get to those writerly chosen moments of ‘accidental’ poesy that occurs in the best written conversations.
There is something in Trevor’s tales that lack spontaneity and passion. There is a logy of narrative motion that makes a reader too often want to say, ‘Let’s go, this is boring.’ As someone who was a poet before writing fiction I see this all the time in prose- even that by good writers- and Trevor is an almost textbook example of this flaw. As for the bulk of the tales themselves- they usually follow the daily or romantic follies and faux pas of middle to upper class fogies who rue their love lives and infidelities with too much drink (albeit with none of the humor of the best of Raymond Carver), too many manners, and too little introspection. Then, a moment occurs, something changes (ever so slightly) and the tales end with a whimper rather than a bang. And by whimper I don’t mean a Chekhovian nor Hemingwayvian zero ending, but a simple offhand comment or muttering over crumpets. Trevor is the perfect disciple of the standard tripartite slice of life tale tale, where the gun goes off in the third movement just where it should, little undermines that movement, then whimper. Even his story titles can dull. The effect of this formula over a few hundred pages really weighs down even a good reader as myself. Too often you know what is going to happen, although you truly hope you are wrong- you rarely are, and in those few instances Trevor displays the gifts that could have made his front cover blurbery prophetic.
In A Meeting In Middle Age, the book’s first story, this formula is laid out to a T, although it is probably the best of the tales that follow this formula of the failed romance. A Mrs. da Tanka is meeting a Mr. Mileson for an assignation at a hotel. They squabble, share a bed, and the next morning squabble some more. She is a shrew, and he a snob. There is little to care about in these portraits, but they are well wrought, and pretty funny, at their best. By contrast, In Isfahan has an even lighter Lost In Translation feel about it, where a middle-aged married middle-aged man carries on with a young woman in Iran. Lovers Of Their Time sees a married man have an affair with a shop girl met in a hotel’s public restroom. Angels at the Ritz depicts the resistance of a couple drawn into a wife-swapping game in which husbands throw car keys on the carpet and blindfolded wives pick them up. In Afternoon Dancing, a middle-aged married woman thinks of an affair with her dance partner. In The Ballroom Of Romance a girl’s dreams are made in the local dance hall. The tale follows a thirtysomething Irish woman named Bridie, who cares for her crippled father. She dances on Saturday nights, attends church on Sundays and is smitten with a blue collar guy and drummer named Dano Ryan. He does not return her affections, and she is pursued by a drunk named Bowser Egan. She faces a very common dilemma:
She would wait now and in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse.
Who has not been there? Office Romances is an archetypal Trevor tale as well, which follows a young woman, new to a company, who falls for the office Lothario, then smugly looks down on a wiser, older woman who likewise looks down upon her. Mr. Tennyson goes even a step further in this regard, as a teenaged girl falls in love with a married male teacher who is notorious for having seduced a young girl years earlier. he is believed to have seduced many since, but when the girl tries out her wiles she fails, for the teacher is full of remorse- as the girl’s life was ruined, and he paid for her abortion. In response to his rejection she sets down a path of banality and regret. A variant on the romantic follies theme is that of the parent’s love for their child. Coffee With Oliver follows the pursuit of a grown daughter by her father, and August Saturday follows the meeting of a woman with the father of her child, who does not know of this fact, and she does not tell him of it. Access To The Children is about an adulterer’s quest to win back his wife from her new fiancé after he drops off his kids after a visit. Their pasts are nicely sketched from more than one perspective, and eventually the adulterer deludes himself as to his chances of winning back his wife. Here is an excellent bit of character study, about the wife’s rationale:
She left him. He had been cruel, and then Diana had been cruel, and now Elizabeth was cruel, because it was her right and her instinct to be so. He recalled with vividness Diana’s face in those first moments on the train, her eyes looking at him, her voice. ‘You have lost all dignity,’ Elizabeth had whispered, in the darkness, at night. “I despise you for that.’
The General’s Day is another tale that follows a formula, albeit a bit different one- humor. The General is an old man who wanders about town causing all sorts of mischief, including getting drunk and fondling a woman he meets. It ends with a humorous scene of his return to his home, being fondled and robbed by his domestic. Again, there are no great points, nor lessons, in this tale, but it marginally succeeds as a realistic character portrait, even if it is too long a tale. Here is a slice of its humor:
‘Old men and their wives sat listening to the talk about them, exchanging by the way a hard comment on their fellows. Middle-aged women, outsize in linen dresses, were huddled three or four to a table, their great legs battling for room in inadequate space, their feet hot and unhappy in unwise shoes. Mothers passed unsuitable edibles towards the searching mouths of their young. Men with girls sipped at the pale creamy coffee, thinking only of the girls. Crumbs were everywhere….’
Other humorous tales include The Table, which might be the best tale in the whole book, as it deals with classism, snobbery, obsession, and all with a good sense of humor. In The Penthouse Apartment an old woman’s sensibilities are disturbed when her dog is blamed for damage caused when a janitor hosts a party. The Day We Got Drunk On Cake is an example of a ‘scene’ that becomes a whole story, and does not work. This is because Trevor’s comic ability is based in things such as the mildly ironic, or the incongruous embarrassment, not sharp wit- as in Oscar Wilde, whose comedies of manners are still the Gold Standard in such, nor hilarious slapstick.
Then there is the darker side of Trevor- dealing with rage, death, injustice, anger. Memories Of Youghal, as example, deals with the narrator coming to terms with the death of his parents. A School Story is a good tale that follows the males of a boarding school, one of whom brags constantly of his desire to murder his parents. When they turn up dead, on their Kenyan estate, another of his classmates psychologically tortures the boy into thinking he actually did the deed. The tale’s narrator is revulsed by the game playing fiend, especially after the boy with the murdered parents is carted away after confessing to the deed. The tale ends poorly though- a big disappointment- not because the reality of the boy’s guilt or innocence is not established, but because there seems to have been little point to the tale. Miss Smith is a gruesome tale of a child murder that occurs when a teacher becomes the obsession of a sick little boy. While the tale is a bit too long, and could lose some superfluous scenes for pacing, the end is a shocker, and reminds me of the great tale by Richard Yates, called Doctor Jack-O’Lantern, save that this tale’s young villain is even further along the path to ruin. Another tale with a dark twist is even better- In At the Birth, in which a disturbed couple takes in elderly and/or terminal patients, yet calls them their children. They hire a spinster babysitter who is perplexed that she’s never seen the ‘child’ she is supposedly sitting for. She then finds out and avoids the couple until a few years later she is ready to be waited on by the couple, and become their ‘child’. While in no sense a realist piece, it does have a macabre sense of the sick that many of the best known horror tales lacks- sort of a Rod Serling meets H.H. Munro.
The last of the four major ‘types’ of Trevor tale are the political pieces, such as Teresa’s Wedding, where she is a pregnant woman who needs to marry, yet has seen the failure of her sisters’ marriages and comes to terms with certain aspects of herself. Trevor is unrelenting in his condemnation of Church morals and Irish obeisance to them. Even harsher, in some ways, is his Two More Gallants, which references James Joyce’s Two Gallants, literally, tonally, and postmodernly, and ends quite well. Like Joyce, Trevor recounts a deception: a college student schemes to humiliate a Joyce scholar who has discovered Joyce’s source for the slavey in Two Gallants. His basic thrust is how Irish men are responsible for their inability to transcend their cultural inferiority complex, much as Joyce’s was. In Torridge a reunion of old school chums is marred by the revelation that, when they were at school, a friend hanged himself for being gay. But the best of his political tales is also one of his most famous: Attracta is about a conscientious spinster teacher nearing retirement who refuses to kowtow to the demands of her superiors in regard to teaching methods- especially when she comes across a newspaper piece on a murder that touches her own past of loss. Her bland life has been dominated by one event- her parents’ murder during the Irish troubles, when she was only three years old. She reads in a newspaper that a former student, who married a British soldier serving in Belfast, had his severed head mailed to her in a plastic bag inside a biscuit tin. She then returned to Belfast, to confront the killers and was raped by them. She then committed suicide. The report affects Attracta, who sees similarities to he tale. They are both ‘Horror stories, with different endings only,’ for the murderers of her parents became her benefactors. When she conveys this tale to her students she is rebuked and forced into retirement.
I have not read Trevor’s novels so I do not know if that is his area of true excellence, but I can state that his short stories are not the masterworks that his supporters depict. And this has nothing to do with the question of whether he is an Irish writer nor a British writer, but whether or not he is a great writer of short fiction. I say no, and clearly. The fact is that Trevor’s purview- both as sketched narratively and handled philosophically, is quite small. In a sense, he is more at home with the pre-Chekhovian world of the short story. His tales lack the emotional and intellectual depth of the best of fiction. His tales are genuinely bleak, although that is not a criticism, merely a recognition, yet nothing is ever made of this bleakness. It’s as if one were snowblinded in the Arctic and never spoke of glare, nor ever tried to even reconcile what it was, how it was caused, nor what the effects of it are. When he is at his best, such as the end of Miss Smith, he is wise enough to let the evil of the little boy do the heavy lifting. But, in far too many stories he sketches dilettante after dilettante, as if there is something deeper there than mere dilettantism. There may be, but he makes no effort at the connection. Some critics have tried to divine what Trevor’s Protestantism might have to do with his perspectives in the tales, and most end up with decidedly politicized opinions. To me, it’s much more obvious. Trevor indeed has an outsider point of view, and this comes through clearly in his tales. Where a Chekhov or Carver burrows into character, Trevor is content to let the patina of banal conversation serve as characterization. To him, character is reflected in actions, not in inwardly limned feelings. Whether this is an outgrowth of his personal take on life, or an indication of his writing limitations is beside the point. The why is not important, that simple fact is. Trevor’s characters are like porcelain dolls in highly plotted out dance routines. But, never do they, nor their creator, throw caution to the side and let daring roam free.
Yes, he will populate his tales with rakes and debauchees- such as the lustful adolescents of An Evening With John Joe Dempsey, or the wacky bachelors living with their wackier sisters in The Original Sins Of Edward Tripp, but nothing truly unexpected ever occurs, that would make the inner tale seem merely a natural consequence of the outer narrative eye’s look into the characters’ lives. Reading Trevor is like going to an old doctor that has a bad bedside manner. As the old joke goes, if you’d ask him why a certain part of your body hurts if you move a certain way his instinct is not to diagnose and treat the malady, merely to gruffly order you not to move said body part that way again. He skims surfaces and refuses to dig beneath. Many of his situations, characters, and denouements seem terribly contrived- which is the exact opposite effect of Chekhov, a writer to whom he’s often compared. In Chekhov’s best tales things seem to float out of the narrative future with the ease of unexpected reality. In Trevor, you can smell the set up a mile away, like a bad vaudeville act ready to guffaw on the third ba-boom. Yet, unlike the vaudevillians, who knew if you advertise it so blatantly you have to deliver, Trevor demurs, and laconically kicks back and lets his ‘moment’ then attempt to play out naturalistically. And this is where the schism of artifice hits the savvy reader, where it rarely does so in a Chekhov. In many tales the very length and banality of the situations tend to turn a reader off, achieving that same sort of Irish angst and ennui that Joyce did, at his best, with invigorating tales. And some of his tales drain because even their finer moments are so bounded by the pedestrian- in theme and construction, as well as a creaky artificiality and superficiality that even his well-choreographed narrative waltzes cannot remedy. To be turned on to angst, in essence, as Joyce can do, is a far greater accomplishment to be stupefied into it, as Trevor often does- and these flaws, in fact, doom the bulk of his tales from the very greatness his boosters claim for him. I think this sort of effusive overpraise of writers who are clearly limited, even if they are good at their best, ultimately disservices the writer in the long run, setting up expectations in the work, and against greater writers, that the claimed writer simply cannot meet. Trevor is like this- while his work is not great it is capable of some wonderful moments of small comedy and touching emotion. Is not that enough?
Apparently not for his supporters. So let me lay out his biggest flaw- his later tales seem to be mere apings of earlier successes. In short, this is the sign of a writer who’s run out of steam, for the tales- some of those named above, are often just slight variations on a theme. There are the same types of characters, as well situations, and Trevor’s female characters, with few exceptions, are never as well nor deeply wrought as his male characters. He generally, especially in his later tales, falls into caricature, at best, and condescension, toward his characters and reading audience, at worst. But, the greatest sin is that he often simply lets his tales hang limply- as if he has tired of the tale long before its end. Early tales withheld facts as a way to get a reader to dig within for an answer, while those later in his career leave details out simply because of the writer’s ennui. In short, Trevor is merely a good- not great- writer in dire need of a good editor’s Selected Stories, to get the best twenty or so tales together and make his case for the canon. As it is, these wildly hit and miss tales do not make that case, even if his longer fiction might. O editor, where art thou?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Dublin Quarterly website.]
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